IEET > Vision > Virtuality > Bioculture > Fellows > HealthLongevity > Athena Andreadis
If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!
Athena Andreadis   May 17, 2009   Sentient Developments  

(incorrectly but fittingly ascribed to Emma Goldman, feminist, activist, trouble-maker)

IEET Fellow Athena Andreadis is guest blogging at IEET Board member George Dvorsky’s blog, Sentient Developments, this month.

Those who know my outermost layer would consider me a science geek. I’m a proponent of genetic engineering, an advocate of space exploration, a reader and writer of science fiction. However, I found myself unable to warm to either transhumanism or its literary sidekick, cyberpunk. I ascribed this to the decrease of flexibility that comes with middle age and resumed reading Le Guin’s latest story cycle.

But the back of my mind gnawed over the discrepancy. After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades of… and then it hit me… gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that don’t involve VR.

And I finally rea
lized why I balk at cyberpunk and transhumanism like an unruly horse. Both are deeply anhedonic, hostile to physicality and the pleasures of the body, from enjoying wine to playing in an orchestra. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure this out. After all, many transhumanists use the repulsive (and misleading) term “meat cage” to describe the human body, which they deem a stumbling block, an obstacle in the way of the mind.

This is hoary dualism disguised as futuristic thinking, augmented by healthy doses of queasiness and power fantasies. Ascetics of other eras tried to diminish the body by fasting, flagellating, abstaining from all physical gratification from washing to sex. Techno-monks want to discard it altogether. The goal is a disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream. If a body is tolerated at all, the ideal is a mixture of metal and ceramic, hairless and poreless, though it still retains the hyper-gendered configurations possible only in cartoons.

Is abandonment of the body such a bad thing? As anyone who lost a limb or went through a major illness can attest, it’s a marvelous instrument
whose astonishing abilities become obvious only when it malfunctions. On the other hand, it’s undeniably fragile and humans have lost patience with its shortcomings as technology has overtaken nature. Transhumanists extol such prospects as anti-aging medicine; advanced prosthetics; radical cosmetic surgery, including sex changes; nootropic drugs; and carbon-silicon interfaces, from cyborgs to immersive VR.

I don’t know a single woman who, given the choice, would opt to retain menstruation, pregnancy or menopause (though few would admit it openly). And very few people, no matter how stoic, can face the depradations of chronic disease or age with equanimity. The neo-Rupturists who prophesy the coming
of the Singularity can hardly wait to exchange their bodies with versions that will never experience memory lapses or fail to achieve erections at will.

I’m no Luddite, bio or otherwise.  I am glad that technology has enabled us to lead lives that are comfortable, leisured and long enough that we can explore the upper echelons of the hierarchy of needs. However, we demean the body at our peril. It’s not the passive container of our mind; it is its major shaper and inseparable partner. If we discard our bodies we run the danger of losing context to our lasting detriment – as we have already done by successive compartmentalizations and sunderings.

Humans are inherently social animals that developed in response to feedback loops between the environment and their own evolving form. Like all lifeforms, we’re jury-rigged. Furthermore, humans are mediocre across the entire spectrum of physical prowess, from range of vision to maximum running speed. Yet this mediocrity probably enabled us to occupy many environmental niches successfully before technology allowed us to impose our wishes on our environment. Optimizing in any direction may push us into dead-end corners, something that has happened to many species we engineered extensively.

This also holds true for our
brains. It’s a transhumanist article of faith that intelligence can and must be augmented – but there are many kinds of intelligence. A lot of learning is mediated through the body, from using a screwdriver properly to gauging complex social interactions. Short-circuiting this type of learning results in shallow knowledge that may not become integrated into long-term memory. There is a real reason for apprenticeships, despite their feudal overtones: people who use Photoshop, CAD and laboratory kits without prior “traditional” training frequently make significant errors and often cannot critically evaluate their results. Furthermore, without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination or madness, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain.

Another feedback loop is provided by the cortical emotions, which enable us to make decisions. Two prominent side effects of many nootropic drugs are flattening of the emotions and suppression of creativity. Far from fine-tuning perception, the drugs act as blunting hammers. Finally, if we evade our bodies by uploading into a silicon frame (biologically impossible, but let’s grant it as a hypothesis), we may lose the capacity for empathy, as shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers.

I do believe that our bodies can be improved. Nor does everything have to remain as it is now. I wouldn’t mind having wings t
hat could truly lift me; even less would I mind living without fear of cancer or diabetes. Yet I’m fairly certain that we have to stick with carbon if we want seamless form and function. When I hear talk of “upgrading” to silicon or to ether, I get a strong whiff of cubicleers imagining themselves as Iron Man or Neo. Being alone inside a room used to be a punishment.  Being imprisoned inside one’s head is a recipe for insanity. Without our bodies, we bid fair to become not exalted intellects but mad(wo)men in the attic.

Athena Andreadis served as a fellow of the IEET from 2007 to 2009, and is an Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek.


Athena hits the nail on the head with her perspective on why many tech-savvy people are turned off by Transhumanism.  Even Ray Kurzweil talks about the need for life-enhancement to keep up with life-extension so that we don’t get bored out of our minds.  If we can get to the point where a virtual environment can provide us with stimulus equaling or exceeding the input from our real-world senses, then we’ll surely be able to “backup” our minds, at which point our real-world bodies are no longer death traps.  Either way (virtual or real) there’s no reason to deny our sensual pleasures.

WOW! Whether or not you agree with Athena Andreadis, her view of transhumanism is probably held by many people even if they can’t express themselves as incisively and eloquently as she does. Kudos to the folks at IEET for having the openess to public self-criticism for publishing this piece. If this is a consequence of embracing a technoprogressive world view, I can only say one thing: MORE PLEASE! 😊

In the end what transhumanism seeks to create is not a human upgrade, in fact the final outcome a posthuman may end up being alien to us in every way. 

Yet if this is the will of the universe can we not send our human seed elsewhere to start over while we play the singularity end game here?

Athena, I think you are kind of assuming your conclusions: you start assuming that transhumanism is grey, and conclude that it is grey. I think it is not grey, but an explosion of beautiful colors.

I am one of those who see the body as a meat cage and, if the option were already available, I would cheerfully choose to upload to silicon or cyberspace.  But then I would want MORE color, sound, scent and sex, not less.

Why can’t a “disembodied mind playing World of Warcraft in a VR datastream” feel much MORE empathy, friendship, and love (or hate) for others that we do today? Why can’t they enjoy art, love flowers and be compassionate and supportive of other sentient beings? Why can’t they laugh at a good joke or cry at a sad story? Why can’t they enjoy a virtual beer with good friends in a simulated pub?

These are indeed assumptions, in my opinion questionable. I don’t see any reason why a disembodied mind cannot _in principle_ have a inner and social life much richer than ours. Of course everything depends on the actual implementation of these yet to be developed options, but there is no reason to assume the worst. Let experiment decide: someday we will be able to _ask_ disembodied minds how they actually feel.

Transalchemy, I agree.  A posthuman intelligence will be very different from us, regardless of the details of its creation.  And we will have to expand beyond earth (or try to, anyway) for reasons other than potential hostile sentients: we’re rapidly running out of resources.

Giulio, disembodied fun in VR will be an extended hallucination regardless of its quality, unlike dreaming which affects reality by influencing synaptic configuration.

If we ever create novel minds in silicon, they won’t be disembodied either. Their chips (or equivalent) will be indispensable parts of themselves, even if their intelligence is distributed over networks. Or are we in “pure energy” creature territory?

A couple more nice relevant Nietzsche quotes:

“I do not go your way, you despisers of the body! You are no bridges to the Overman!” (from Zarathustra)

“One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”

Athena: “disembodied fun in VR will be an extended hallucination regardless of its quality, unlike dreaming which affects reality by influencing synaptic configuration.

Disembodied fun in VR will certainly affect “reality” by driving electrons, nanorods, qubits, or other components of whatever material substrate a person is running on. I don’t see a fundamental difference.

If you exist entirely in VR, all you’ll affect (maybe) is the running speed of the computer framework or network you’re in.  Whoever runs the computer can switch you off.

YOur existence is subject to the administrator, it can be bliss or it can be hell . In either case You would have less control of your reality than you do now.

As Natasha Vita-More points out in her response, H+ ideas are certainly compatible with an aspiration to increase bodily pleasures and aesthetic pursuits. However, the point that I think Athena is making is that H+ ideas are most often expressed in ways that negate the body and its pleasures. I think this is a valid point.

So, even though the ideas themselves are not inconsistent with a physicalist perspective, this perspective is largely left unexplored by a great number of H+ writings. The way this comes across is as a lack of playful, sexy or colorful representations of human experience.

The problem could be that much H+ writing takes itself too seriously for its own good, and over-relies on a rationalist and argumentative approach that closes off meanings that are not based on objective evidence or reasoned arguments, such as feelings, sensations, tastes, whims, moods, etc.

Many H+ describe the qualities of pleasure but this is not the same as creating a pleasurable experience in themselves. This is the difference between a technical manual describing the origins, steps, etc of a dance, and the experience itself of actually dancing the dance.

Having said this, all we need is a wider variety of expression in H+ circles, without changing the foundations of H+ philosophy. H+ is still a growing movement…

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